Imagery in Derek Mahon’s Poetry

Imagery in Derek Mahon’s Poetry

Day Trip to Donegal: Here Mahon examines the relationship between man and nature, using imagery to display how man is harmfully intruding on the natural world. Donegal is initially idealized with imagery of the sublime, with Mahon declaring that its hills are ‘a deeper green/ Than anywhere in the world’, which has echoes of Kavanagh’s declaration with Shancoduff. While the statement is impossible to prove the image serves to show the beauty of nature, namely that even in such a basic and minute form, some hills in Donegal, extreme beauty can be found. However near the hills the threat facing nature is present, as Mahon speaks of ‘the grave/ Grey of the sea the grimmer in that enclave’, with the image of the depressing sea pointing to the threat that man poses to nature. In this grim sea is another image that shows this threat, as Mahon reveals the fish being caught by the fishermen who plan to sell these fish at market. Mahon uses personification to emphasize this threat, presenting the fish suffering in terms of human emotion; as they are caught and flop about the deck he speaks of their ‘attitudes of agony and heartbreak.’ The poet is clever here; showing fish being caught would not arouse much sympathy from the reader, as this is an everyday occurrence, but personifying the fish makes such an act seem more barbaric (and thus the threat is amplified) as it is presented as akin to assault or murder.

After the Titanic: While Mahon focuses mostly on the narrator, his escape from the ship as it sank and his resulting trauma caused by his guilt (the narrator reveals ‘I tell you/ I sank as far that night as any/ Hero’) he also focuses on the sinking of the ship itself. The poet uses vivid images when doing so, so as to emphasize that what is not important is the sinking of the ship; what is important is the many who passed away as a result, and those whose lives were affected by these deaths. Mention is made of ‘a pandemonium of/ Prams, pianos, sideboards, winches’ which is poignant when considering the significance of these items, as they represent those who have passed away in the sinking; the prams represent infants now deceased, while pianos represent those who passed away with a musical quality. Similarly, when the narrator speaks of ‘Where the tide leaves broken toys and hat boxes/ Silently at my door’ we are reminded of the infants passed away who would have played with such toys (which in turn were destroyed by the sinking) and the men who would wear hats that once inhabited the now empty boxes.

Ecclesiastes: Mahon uses contrasting images to show a reason for his disrespect of the Protestant culture, that its leaders, here the ‘God-fearing, God-/ chosen purist little puritan’ are hypocritical and thus that their repression is all the more sinful. He uses images associated with darkness and depression to tell the preacher how he should act, such as when he should ‘love the January rains when they darken the dark doors and sink hard/ into the Antrim hills, the bog meadows, the heaped/ graves of your fathers’. The reasoning for this is shown when he associates the preacher’s actions and life philosophy with vibrant colours to show how while the leaders of the Protestant culture instruct its members to live life according to restrictions (represented by the dark and depressing images which show life not being lived and experienced fully), they do not. The preacher is told to ‘Bury that red/ bandana and stick, that banjo’, as these items represent a wanderer (the bandana and stick hold the wanderer’s belongings); the banjo represents his carefree state, as he moves from place to place with no responsibility or care for any other. As a result Mahon tells the preacher ‘this is your/ country, close one eye and be king’, which refers to the saying ‘In the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man is king’, which not only criticizes the preachers and other leaders of the Protestant culture for their poor leadership  but also suggests they are leaders because those who they lead do not realise the hypocrisy of the Protestant culture.

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About the Author

John Ryan

John has a Masters in Modern English Literature and is the founder of RyJoLC, an educational consultancy based in Dublin that provides English language and curriculum resources to educational institutions worldwide.
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